God commands us not to think more highly of ourselves than we ought, “but to think with sober judgment” (Romans 12:3). Sober judgment also entails not thinking more lowly of ourselves than is true. And the Bible has a great deal to say to us on this account.
When I speak to a group of Christians, whether in church or in a classroom setting, and ask, “Who in here is pure in heart and good?” very rarely does anyone put up their hand. I then ask, “Are there any Christians sitting here?” After that question, they all typically respond in the affirmative. In response, I say that if you are prepared to call yourself a Christian, then you also should be prepared to affirm that you are pure in heart and good, and the list goes on.
But how is this possible? Aren’t we sinners? Yes, we are sinners. But God has revealed to us a precious truth that is often diminished or even largely forgotten in many quarters in the church today — and I want us to recover it. In short, God accepts us in Christ and so accepts our (very) imperfect obedience in such a way that we are properly described as “pure in heart” and “good.” It’s a remarkable truth. Consider the biblical witness with me.
- Christians have pure hearts.
If you are truly a Christian, you have a pure heart (1 Timothy 1:5). If you want to worship God, you need a pure heart (Psalm 24:4). Those who are pure in heart — and only those — will see God (Matthew 5:8).
We should shy away from denying that we are pure in heart, even if our intentions are noble. We are pure in heart. Like the man who said, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24), we can say, “I am pure in heart; help me to be more pure in heart.” David was one such person in Psalm 51 (verse 10).
- Christians are good and righteous.
Luke describes Zechariah and Elizabeth in the following way: “They were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord” (Luke 1:6). Joseph of Arimathea is similarly described as a “good and righteous man” (Luke 23:50). Christians are “slaves of righteousness” (Romans 6:18). We hunger and thirst after righteousness (Matthew 5:6).
Good people go to heaven — not self-wrought goodness, but true goodness, produced by the Spirit of God. Those who have the Spirit have the fruit of the Spirit, which includes goodness (Galatians 5:22; see Romans 8:9). If you aren’t good, you will not go to heaven (Galatians 5:21).
- Christians are blameless.
Paul writes to the Philippians, “Do all things without grumbling or disputing, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world” (Philippians 2:14–15). He expects that children of God should be blameless.
He is not here saying, “You are blameless because of your justification,” but, “Be blameless, innocent, and without blemish because of your conduct.” How can Christians be all of these things? Because our loving Father accepts less — a lot less (think “small beginnings”) — than perfection from us because of his perfect Son and for the sake of his perfect Son, who is glorified in us (John 17:10).
The Heart of Our Father
He is our Father. Parents will, no doubt, understand the joys that our children can bring to us in their obedience, even if their obedience falls short of what Christ would have offered to his own parents. God is not a hard taskmaster, reaping where he hasn’t sown (Matthew 25:24). He remembers we are dust (Psalm 103:14), and treats us accordingly.
As our Father, he accepts less than absolute perfection because he accepted absolute perfection already in our place. Moreover, our works are now pleasing to God because we (as persons) are pleasing to God as a result of our unshakable new identity in Christ. We have a “person-work” order in our Christian life.
God Rewards Imperfect Works
In God’s sight, we are good, righteous, blameless, and pure in heart. If we can’t admit these truths about ourselves, then we can’t admit what the New Testament explicitly says of God’s people. And that’s not good.
The obedience we offer to God does not have to be sinless obedience or perfect obedience, but it must be sincere obedience. In our imperfection, we may please God. He even rewards imperfect works, according to the riches of his grace, because he is our Father.
The fact that our works are tainted with sin does not invalidate them as good works — just as the fact that we have indwelling sin does not mean we cannot be called good, holy, righteous, and blameless. It is wrong-headed, then, to suppose that we exalt the grace of God by suggesting that the only righteousness pleasing to God is Christ’s righteousness.
How to Help Others
We should encourage Christians that God accepts sincere obedience. Children should be encouraged that obedience to their parents pleases the Lord (Colossians 3:20).
Are we allowed to pray the words of the psalmist (Psalm 18:20–24)? He has more of a “New Testament view” of himself than many Christians today:
The Lord dealt with me according to my righteousness;
according to the cleanness of my hands he rewarded me.
For I have kept the ways of the Lord,
and have not wickedly departed from my God.
For all his rules were before me,
and his statutes I did not put away from me.
I was blameless before him,
and I kept myself from my guilt.
So the Lord has rewarded me according to my righteousness,
according to the cleanness of my hands in his sight.
Yes, as Christians, we often sin (1 John 1:8). And we can act shamefully at times. The power of indwelling sin is real. Nothing here is intended to deny how sinful we can be.
But how amazing is it that — notwithstanding the very powerful indwelling sin that remains in us — God thinks more of our obedience than we do. God calls us good even when many of us are unwilling to say that about ourselves. Even in our disappointment with our slowness of progress in obedience, this truth should keep us far from despair.